Pluto’s Expanding Atmosphere Confounds Researchers
By Sid Perkins | ScienceMag.org
Recent observations of Pluto reveal that the icy orb’s atmosphere has expanded dramatically since 2000, and for the first time researchers have detected carbon monoxide. The findings may be evidence of seasonal changes in climate linked to Pluto’s most recent close approach to the sun, but scientists still aren’t sure about how those variations unfold over the course of each 248-year orbit.
Pluto’s atmosphere recently expanded dramatically and now extends almost one-quarter of the distance to Charon, its largest orbital companion (lower right).
Credit: P. A. S. Cruickshank
Pluto is the only object orbiting in the frigid realm beyond Neptune that is known to have an atmosphere. That tenuous sheath of gas was discovered in 1988 when the “dwarf planet” passed between Earth and a distant star, blocking some of the star’s light. Although telescopic observations at various wavelengths since the early 1990s have since identified several substances in Pluto’s surface ices—including nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide—only methane had been detected previously in its atmosphere.
Now scientists can add carbon monoxide to the mix. New observations of the atmosphere’s emissions at various wavelengths, particularly at the 1.3-millimeter wavelength, betray the presence of the gas for the first time. Because carbon monoxide probably could have been observed by instruments in previous studies, its newfound presence likely marks a new stage in the season-by-season evolution of Pluto’s atmosphere, the researchers suggest. Pluto was discovered only about 80 years ago—less than one-third of the time it takes to make a single orbit, notes team member Jane Greaves, an astrobiologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, so “we’re seeing everything happen for the first time.”
Pluto rendered surface (ESO/L Cal ada)
Although methane and carbon monoxide are the only gases yet detected in Pluto’s atmosphere, scientists expect that by far the largest constituent is nitrogen, a gas that’s hard to detect due to its subdued emissions characteristics at many wavelengths, Greaves says. “It’s frustrating that we don’t know about 97% of Pluto’s atmosphere.”
The new observations also reveal that Pluto’s atmosphere is growing. Data collected around the turn of the century suggested that Pluto’s cold, diffuse atmosphere extended no more than 135 kilometers above the planet’s surface, Greaves says. But she sees hints of an atmospheric expansion in data that she and her colleagues gathered using telescopes atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea on 11 nights scattered between August 2009 and May 2010. She says that the atmosphere now reaches heights of more than 3000 kilometers—a distance almost one-quarter of the way to Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. “This is not what we expected,” Greaves says. “The atmosphere has changed so dramatically.”
Pluto travels along a highly elliptical path and last passed closest to the sun in 1989. Many planetary scientists expected the atmosphere to shrink as the icy orb began receding from the sun’s warmth. The unanticipated expansion may be related to changes in the darkness of the orb’s surface a decade or so ago, which may have caused the surface ices to absorb more solar radiation and more efficiently evaporate. Or, Greaves suggests, long-term variations in the sun’s ultraviolet output, changes linked to the roughly 11-year cycle of solar activity, may be playing a role. The team will present both findings tomorrow at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Llandudno in the United Kingdom.
The recent changes in the atmosphere, as well as their timing, are indeed unexpected, says Peter Barnes, an astronomer at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “Pluto is obviously a much more dynamic object than anyone had expected.”
Current studies are just a taste of what’s to come when NASA’s New Horizons mission nears Pluto. The heavily instrumented craft, launched in 2006, is halfway to Pluto and should whiz by the icy orb and its orbital companions in 2015.
Article from: news.sciencemag.org
Front Page Image: NASA
Also tune into:
Wallace Thornhill - The Electric Universe
Donald E. Scott - The Electric Sky
Rens van der Sluijs - Plasma Mythology & The Axis Mundi
Susan Joy Rennison - Cosmic Origins of Global Warming
Joseph P Farrell - Cosmic War, Interplanetary Warfare & Mesopotamian Mythology
Andy Lloyd - Dark Star, Evidence for Planet X
Craig Hines - Gateway of the Gods
Andrew Johnson - Chemtrails, Weather Modification & Climate Change
Robert Felix - The Coming Ice Age
Tim Ball - Climategate & The Anthropogenic Global Warming Fraud
James Follett - The Church of Global Warming
Susan Joy Rennison - A New Cosmic Age, Space Weather & Cosmic Radiation
Pluto bulging with carbon monoxide
Get your electricity from outer space
NASA provides "Explanation" of China Earthquake: "Electrical disturbances on edge of atmosphere & impending quakes"
Shooting clouds with lasers triggers electrical discharge
Space Aliens Blamed For the Electric Universe?
Hubble shows Pluto "turning red" - Planet X?
Large "Planet X" may lurk beyond Pluto
Global Warming on Mars, Pluto, Triton and Jupiter
Huge New Planet (Brown Dwarf?) Discovered in Our Solar System - Tyche Echoes of Planet X or "Nibiru"
Forget Planet X - New Technique Could Pinpoint Galaxy X
Did planet hunter leak data about other Earths?
Newfound Planet Orbits Backward
The truth about global warming - it’s the Sun that’s to blame
The Church of Global Warming
Pluto’s atmosphere is here today, gone tomorrow (2008)
Latest News from our Front Page
Estonia must accept African & Middle Eastern immigrants says politician
Kalle Laanet, an Estonian politician, spoke at the International Migration Forum held in Tallinn. He told the audience that the question is not: Should Estonia take the African and the Middle Eastern immigrants (who illegally entered Southern Europe)? He said the question is: How will Estonia take the immigrants?
â€śToday the issue is not whether Estonia should receive the refugees coming to ...
Rescuing Palmyra: History's lesson in how to save artefacts
With Islamic State militants now inside the historic town of Palmyra in Syria, the question, inevitably, is whether they will destroy the ancient ruins.
As IS continues to sweep through parts of Iraq and Syria, damage to centuries-old artefacts - because IS sees statues and shrines as idolatrous - is plentiful.
But history has shown that, when culturally important sites are under ...
Saudi Arabia Wants to Convert Sweden to Islam
Aje Carlbom is an Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Malmö
Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has actively spread its interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism or Salafism, worldwide. It is the most literal version of Islam and affects many young Muslims, who regard society as a place to Islamize, writes social anthropologist Aje Carlbom.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot WallstrĂ¶m was ...
Professor: If You Read To Your Kids, You're 'Unfairly Disadvantaging' Others
According to a professor at the University of Warwick in England, parents who read to their kids should be thinking about how they're "unfairly disadvantaging other people's children" by doing so.
In an interview with ABC Radio last week, philosopher and professor Adam Swift said that since "bedtime stories activities . . . do indeed foster and produce . . ...
If You Read About Conspiracies You're Just Like Osama Bin Laden Apparently
At its heart, the story of Osama bin Laden's time at his house in Abbottabad is surreal. The American image of bin Laden - leering at us from under his head wrap as he plots and schemes - is undermined by the mundane realities of his life. The guy was responsible for murdering thousands of Americans and orchestrating a global ...
|More News » |